Whoo, boy. That ... that was a lot.
The Derby d’Italia is always a tense affair. The natural rivalry between Juventus and Inter Milan has always heightened emotions, and the fallout from calciopoli only intensified that into genuine hatred. The last two years have taken on an even greater dimension as the two architects of the great Juventus dynasty, Antonio Conte and Beppe Marotta, have taken charge of the Nerazzurri.
This is all to say that a contentious and controversial game is the norm for this fixture, and Saturday’s game was no exception. Both teams had reasons for playing their hearts out in this game. Inter, confirmed as champions for two weeks now, would have wanted nothing more than to punctuate their ending Juve’s nine-year reign by beating the team they dethroned at the Allianz for the first time since 2012. Juve, of course, were playing for their lives in the hunt for top four, needing to win every remaining game while hoping that AC Milan or Napoli slip up to sneak into the top four.
The result was a fiery contest that will be remembered as much for the controversial decisions of referee Giampaolo Calvarese (and the men in the VAR booth who were advising him) as for anything the players might have done. It was a display of officiating breathtaking in its incompetence. Calvarese awarded three penalties — two of which came through the intervention of VAR — that were all soft at best and out-and-out nonsense at worst. That’s to say nothing of the second yellow card issued to Rodrigo Bentancur on the hour mark for a foul that barely merited a mention in the minutiae of a game report, let alone a booking. Overall, Calvarese ended up making himself the story, which always sucks. Both teams had good reason to be furious over certain calls, but in the end Juventus were the team that rose to the top, pulling out a 3-2 victory late on that guaranteed that they would at least have a chance at the top four next week — although the path to the Champions League is a narrow one indeed.
Andrea Pirlo stuck with a 4-4-2 formation for the contest. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal after his midweek rest, with Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro forming the defensive line in front of him. Juan Cuadrado, Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, and Federico Chiesa made up the midfield band. Dejan Kulusevski was a surprise starter in the front two, joining Cristiano Ronaldo.
Antonio Conte fielded a full-strength lineup in his tried and true 3-5-2. Samir Handanovic captained between the sticks, with Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan De Vrij, and Milan Skriniar ahead of him in the back three. Achraf Hakimi and Matteo Darmian were the wingbacks, sandwiching the midfield trio of Christian Eriksen, Marcelo Brozovic, and Nicolo Barella. The ever-reliable duo of Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Luakau started in the strike pair.
An issue in recent games has been how little urgency the team has seemed to have despite the gravity of their situation. There was none of that on Saturday, and Juve started out pressing hard and forcing several turnovers in the opposing half. The pressure started to tell in the 11th minute, when Cuadrado hit an overlapping Danilo with a sweet back-heel pass and the Brazilian fired a cross to the back post. Chiesa headed it back across the goal and found Kulusevski, who lifted a leg high to try to side-foot it into the net, only to be foiled by a headed block by Skriniar. Chiesa was on the receiving end of a training ground routine on the ensuing corner but skied it.
The Swede had another effort stopped after Ronaldo triggered a run in the Inter half, but De Vrij was marking him tightly and put the ball out for corner. In the meantime, Kulusevski was making it clear why Pirlo had put him into the starting XI. When Inter was in possession, he immediately became glued to Brozovic, often discouraging the Croatian’s teammates from passing the ball in his direction and depriving Inter of their midfield fulcrum.
The first moment that brought Calvarese front and center came in the 22nd minute, when Chiellini went down in the box as Cuadrado delivered a corner kick. He came up screaming at the referee, and after a minute or so the VAR buzzed down to the field for Calvarese to take a look. The standard Serie A wrestling had been going on in the box as the delivery swung in, but Darmian had his arm around Chiellini’s waist as he tried to break into space to meet the ball. Of the three penalties Calvarese gave overall this was probably the one closest to being correct, even if it was still relatively soft. Ronaldo stepped up to the spot, and his attempt to slip his penalty down the middle was met by a save from Handanovic. Fortunately the rebound went right back to the shooter and Ronaldo quickly tucked it past the prone Slovenian to give Juve the lead.
Inter started to get back into the game in terms of possession, but weren’t doing all that much with it, and it was mostly a midfield battle for the next 10 minutes or so until Calvarese’s next moment in the spotlight. It started in the 33rd minute, when Martinez tried to chase the ball inside the Juve box that was headed back in the other direction. When he suddenly flew to the ground under what looked like zero contact at all, it looked to be a laughable moment. But while he was picking himself up, Calvarese suddenly signaled for a VAR review. As it turned out, de Ligt, who was behind him, had been trying to shift directions and, in the process of planting his foot, caught Martinez with maybe two toes’ worth of his boot on his heel. Calvarese somehow deemed that worthy of pointing to the spot when he returned to the field, gifting Inter their first shooting opportunity of the entire game for the most minimal of contact you could possibly see. Lukaku stepped to the ball and sent Szczesny the wrong way, tying the game at 1-1 and putting Juve back at square one.
Juve responded relatively well and Danilo was unlucky to be unable to put the ball on target after a one-two with Kulusevski. Chiesa was denied by another excellent headed block by Skriniar on a free kick routine that engineered a shot that would’ve been headed toward the far corner otherwise. As the clock ticked into stoppage time Rabiot met a Danilo cross and forced Handanovic to smother his header on the dive, but the keeper couldn’t do anything to stop Cuadrado with seconds left in stoppages. The Colombian had run onto a loose ball after Kulusevski’s attempt to square the ball to Ronaldo was blocked out away from the box, unleashing a screamer that ticked off Eriksen for just enough of a deflection to add some wacky to its flight path, and before Handanovic could adjust it flew past his head and into the net, restoring the lead on the absolute stroke of halftime.
Inter came out a little stronger in the second half, and Conte signaled his intent to ruin his old club’s day when he put on Ivan Perisic for Darmian at the break. Six minutes into the period Martinez nearly equalized in astonishing fashion, curling a ball from the left side of the box that just flew over the bar.
Four minutes later, the game fundamentally changed. Bentancur had been booked in the first half for a professional foul, and when he challenged Lukaku shoulder-to-shoulder outside his own box, Calvarese initially looked like he was going to play an advantage before whistling for a foul and then inexplicably showing Bentancur a second yellow card for what was, at the absolute most, a simple foul that was in no way deserving of further sanction. It was a baffling call, and it turned the game, which Inter was already starting to take control of in the early stages of the half, into something completely different.
Weston McKennie immediately came on in place of Kulusevski to reinforce the midfield. Eriksen took the free kick and hit the target with it, but Szczesny made a relatively simple save low to his right. At that point Juve settled into a 4-4-1 and parked the bus to try to see out their lead. After holding Inter without a shot for the first 15 minutes after the red card, Pirlo made the ballsy call to remove Ronaldo, replacing him with Alvaro Morata and sending Merih Demiral on for the first time since the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16 against Porto.
Juve were disciplined and kept things relatively stable, although with one man less there was always going to be the occasional space. De Ligt made an essential intervention right along on the top of the six-yard box to prevent a Hakimi cross from getting to a waiting Martinez, and Barella snapped a shot well wide. Mattias Vecino came on with 10 minutes left and hit the target with an excellent header, but Szczesny reacted perfectly and parried it away from the goal and any potential danger.
The action came thick and fast at the end of the game. With seven minutes left, Barella put the ball into the box from the left side, aiming for Lukaku at the back post. As he had been all day, Chiellini was tousling with the Belgian, and in the process both players spilled to the ground, with the ball skewing into the net as Chiellini tried to clear it. Initially Calvarese ruled that Lukaku had fouled Chiellini, but VAR again buzzed down and Calvarese came back ruling that it was in fact Chiellini who had been pulling Lukaku’s shirt and reversed the call, giving Inter the equalizer. This one might have been the right call, as Chiellini clearly had a fistful of jersey while it was hard to see whether Lukaku was making similarly forceful contact.
Things were looking glum. With Juve having removed some of their most potent offensive threats to lock things down while down a man, it was hard to see how they could bounce back to get the goal they needed to keep their hopes for the Champions League alive. But the lifeline came just seconds after Calvarese’s VAR check on the last goal ended. Cuadrado took the ball down the right side and was faced up by Perisic. There was a tangle of legs, and the referee immediately blew for the penalty. This was one that Cuadrado had clearly bought, leaving his leg for Perisic to find. But for once VAR didn’t intervene, and the call stood. That led to the question of who would take the kick with their normal penalty takers off the field. Ronaldo had been taken off, while neither Paulo Dybala nor Leonardo Bonucci had seen the field. In the past, Morata had been the man to take it, but Cuadrado was clearly feeling it and he stepped up to the plate. He blasted the ball to the shooter’s left, with Handanovic leaning that way but in no way able to intervene. A scrum of Inter players swarmed the ref after the goal again, resulting in a yellow for dissent to Brozovic, which became consequential a few minutes later when he slid in from behind Cuadrado as he tried to burst away from a corner kick and garnered a second yellow of his own — deserved this time.
Inter had one last chance at the end of stoppage time with a corner and, to show just how much was in the game for them, they sent Handanovic for it, but the ball came back out of the scrum and Calvarese blew the whistle on what had been an enthralling game but, for him, a terrible performance.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made a really fantastic save late against Vecino and kept the defense well organized in front of him, even after going down a man. Vecino’s header was Inter’s only shot on target from open play, a testament to Szczesny keeping things tight in the back and answering some critics in that regard.
DANILO - 6. Dueled well with Perisic after he came on, and provided a couple of good moves going forward, with a key pass and a couple of shots to boot.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. He was great, dueling all day with Martinez and limiting him to a single shot. His anticipation play was incredible, and the intervention he made in the second half to deny the Argentine was huge. I don’t ding him for the penalty — that call was stupid.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 5.5. Earned the first penalty of the day, but that late tussle with Lukaku wasn’t his finest moment, and I don’t think he gets to complain too much about the call. It’s a real shame, because up to that point he’d had a really good day, including a whopping six interceptions, but the own goal was a bit of a downgrade.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Didn’t have a lot in the way of the counting numbers, and he let Hakimi get some dangerous space a few too many times. Roughly neutral but trending slightly down because of that.
JUAN CUADRADO - 8.5. He was immense. His first goal was an absolute scorcher, and having the stones to step up to the spot in the absence of the usual penalty takers was huge. He also had a pair of key passes and two interceptions in addition to his goals. A defining game for his time with the club, and his second big late-game contribution against Inter in four years — let’s hope what happened to Napoli after the last one happens this time too.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Didn’t do much of anything offensively — he only attempted 23 passes — and was adequate defensively in the middle before Calvarese lost his mind. No dings for the red card, because that call was absolutely f%$&ing absurd.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. An understated but excellent performance, making four tackles and forcing a save out of Handanovic in first-half stoppage time. He was engaged and running all over the place before the red card and resolutely defended after it.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Still needs to sharpen up after his injury layoff. He did have one shot blocked that was destined to at least call Handanovic into action.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. A surprise starter but the reason for his presence was immediately apparent, and he marked Brozovic pretty much out of the game until he was sacrificed after the red card — both of Brozovic’s key passes came after that. Had two shots blocked as well. A good shift.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Made a key pass and was moving well in the press upfield. Was perhaps slightly lucky that Handanovic’s penalty save came right out to him, and those were his only two shots on the day, but he got it into the net in the end.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Filled the spaces well in midfield after coming on and kept things tight through the middle.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. Put in a yeoman’s shift for what he had to do, which was run a ton and be the defensive forward a 10-man side needed to protect a lead.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 5.5. A strange choice to go on in a situation like that given he hadn’t played in two months, and the rust showed with some rough touches that gave Inter the opportunity to win the ball back early in his shift. He did settle in a bit and record a tackle and two clearances.
It’s ironic that, with little to no chance of his job really being saved at this point, Pirlo has made some excellent tactical moves the last two games. When the lineups came out on paper, the inclusion of Kulusevski as a striker probably had fans everywhere screaming bloody murder, but after 10 minutes it was clear why he was there, and he did his job on Brozovic very well. Overall, Pirlo’s setup was similar to the way he deployed in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal in that he wanted to limit Brozovic’s ability to dictate in midfield and Inter’s chances of counterattacking, only this time with a little bit more attacking impetus on his own part, rather than the sedate attitude of keeping careful possession that we saw in January when he was protecting a first-leg lead.
His decisions after the red card were also spot on. McKennie was the man who had to come on in that situation, using his ball-winning ability and energy to try to shut things down in the middle for Inter. Removing Ronaldo will always cause a bit of a stir, but Morata was better suited to the type of forward play the team would need to park the bus, and Ronaldo was also facing a suspension on Sunday in Bologna if he’d been booked, which would have been an unnecessary complication in a game they needed to win.
Overall, Pirlo pushed all the right buttons and the team was clearly motivated to play. Now he has to keep that going for another two games.
Atalanta’s 4-3 win over Genoa earlier Saturday clinched them a spot in the top four, leaving only two Champions League places remaining. Saturday’s win puts Juve temporarily ahead of Napoli in fourth place. The Partenopei play Fiorentina in the Sunday lunchtime kickoff game and must win to get themselves back into the top four. If they drop any points, Juve will control their destiny on the final day of the season next weekend. If not, Juve will have to win on Sunday and hope that Napoli drop points against Hellas Verona. AC Milan are catchable as well, but they would have to drop points in both of their games, seeing as how they own the tiebreaker on Juve.
But before all of that gets sorted, there’s a final to be played. Juve will tangle with Atalanta for the third time this year in the Coppa Italia final at the Mapei Stadium — the same building they won the Supercoppa in this year — on Wednesday. Then a trip to Bologna will decide their European fate on Sunday.